SARAH Lakeman’s world collapsed three years ago when her only children, sons Jacques, 20, and Torin, 19, were found dead side by side in a room above a Bolton pub.
The brothers had everything to live for, but they both died after taking pills containing deadly doses of MDMA that Torin had bought from a little-understood yet easy-to-access corner of the internet called the dark net.
“At the time, I was angry with my boys for doing something so stupid,” says Sarah, 53. “I wanted to know who dragged them into this world where you can access drugs that will kill you.”
The dark net – or dark web as it’s also known – is every parent’s worst nightmare, and can be accessed with a simple piece of software. A 2018 survey revealed that the UK is one of the world’s biggest buyers of drugs from it, while a quick search reveals it’s also home to thousands of easily accessible pro-anorexia and self-harm websites.
“If children at a certain age want to delve into the dark web, then it is very difficult to stop them,” admits Tony Neate, former head of South Wales Police High-Tech Crime Unit and CEO of Get Safe Online. “It is a very dangerous place to be because of the content, and some of the viruses there can compromise your PC.”
Yet, shockingly, most parents like Sarah have never even heard of it.
“Although the internet is made up of huge quantities of data, only a small percentage is visible through normal means – often called the surface web, which is full of the news, gossip and video clips that most of us browse,” explains Tony.
“However, below this is the vast expanse of the deep web – all the data that search engines can’t find or that’s no longer used.”
And that data includes ISIS execution videos, child groomers, extremists, prostitutes, paedophiles, human traffickers, assassins for hire and snuff movies.
Just this month, the dark net made global headlines after a German woman and her boyfriend were sentenced to 12 years six months in prison for using it to sell her nine-year-old son to abusers.
Meanwhile, CBB contestant and model Chloe Ayling narrowly escaped being trafficked via the dark net after she was kidnapped, drugged and held captive by the Black Death group in Italy last year.
Chloe’s captor Lukasz Herba planned to auction her for sex slavery, but changed his mind and dropped her off at the British Consulate. Despite initial scepticism, Chloe’s story proved to be true, and in June Herba was sentenced to 16 years in jail for her abduction.
It was in November 2014 that Sarah’s youngest son Torin bought a substance containing deadly doses of MDMA from an anonymous vendor who went by the name Stone Island through a dark net website.
It was delivered by post. At the time, Torin was living in Wales, where he was studying physics at Aberystwyth University. Jacques was staying in London at his grandmother’s home while he worked in a hotel.
On Saturday November 29, the brothers met in Manchester to watch a football match. After the game, they returned to the pub where they had booked a room for the night, had a couple of drinks in the bar and then went up to their room. Their bodies weren’t discovered until Monday afternoon – a day after they were due to check out – when a cleaner entered the room and found the pair dead.
“I cannot even begin to describe the pain,” Sarah says, recalling the moment she was told by police that her sons had died. “I’d lost everything, and realised I had nothing else to lose now.”
For the next six months, Sarah, who lives on the Isle of Man, hid herself away.
“I cried and cried and avoided people,” she says. “I went for long, solitary walks. I couldn’t even go to the village on my own or to a cafe. For a time, I used to think about doing away with myself. But slowly I realised my boys wouldn’t want me to become yet another victim, or someone always hiding in a corner being depressed, and that helped me an awful lot.”
Police eventually discovered that the anonymous vendor Torin had bought the drugs through was Kurt Lai Lan, 26, from Portsmouth. Lai Lan was arrested in June 2017 after officers intercepted one his shipments – £80,000 worth of drugs sent from the Netherlands hidden in jigsaw puzzle boxes.
Further investigations discovered Lai Lan had more than £350,000 in just one bank account, and in December 2017 he was jailed for 16 years after being found guilty of importing and supplying a class A drug.
The tragedy has spurred Jacques and Torin’s father Ray, 68, a retired teacher, to campaign for drug law reform. He argues that it is now so simple to buy drugs online, the only way to ensure safety is to regulate supply.
“The dark net is like Amazon – you go on it, compare prices, click, pay and your purchase turns up in the post a few days later,” says Ray. “That’s how simple it is.
“Usage is far higher than anyone is admitting – people are going to these dealers because it is hard to trace. Torin didn’t know what he was buying and that was what killed them.
The reality is that other people are going to continue to die, and the only way to prevent this is for people who wish to use illegal drugs to have access to a regulated supply, so they know exactly what they are taking in terms of strength and potency.”
But it’s not just drugs that can be bought on the dark web. In 2015 Liam Lyburd, then 19, was sentenced to a minimum of eight years in prison after buying a Glock pistol online, which he planned to use for a shooting spree at Newcastle College.
The deadly plot was only averted when a woman he was speaking to via social media contacted authorities.
But policing the dark net is an almost impossible task, according to documentary maker and author of The Dark Net Jamie Bartlett.
“The network of websites is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to control or censor,” he explains. “Estimates range from a couple of thousand sites to 50,000. It’s the Wild West of the technology world, and it’s extremely difficult to know how many people are accessing the sites.
But we do know that up to 3 million people a day use the browsers needed to access dark web sites. In the same way Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge give access to the normal internet, these browsers allow entry to the dark net.
“You can’t tell who uses it,” Jamie adds. “There are large volumes of illegal pornography on it – this includes images of underage girls, abuse and porn taken without consent.
There is also a lot of stolen data, identities, counterfeit money and drugs for sale. Plus it’s used by misogynistic trolls to target women and stalk and abuse them in a way that ensures they cannot be identified.”
Worryingly, anyone with a PC, smartphone or laptop can access this layer of the internet. All you need is free software that makes your movement in the digital world anonymous.
Then, once you’ve downloaded it and applied another layer of privacy through something called a VPN – which further encrypts activity – you can drop down the dark net rabbit hole to find not only drugs and weapons but anything from forged passports and currency to rhino horns from dealers who freely admit they use slave labour.
And, of course, there is the paedophilia. Shockingly, a study by Portsmouth University estimated that even though just 2% of dark net sites contain paedophilia, they account for 83% of traffic, which suggests that most of the people there pose a danger to children.
So what can worried parents do?
“The key is to establish clear, firm boundaries with a child’s ‘normal’ internet usage,” explains Carolyn Bunting, CEO of Internet Matters, an organisation that helps parents ensure their children use the web safely. “Setting up parental controls is a good idea for limiting access to sites where children might be introduced to the idea of the dark web or even told how to access it.
Meanwhile, look out for the signs that they might be hiding something in their digital life. Talk to your children about the issues and risks, including everything from cyber bullying, sexting and online grooming to extreme content.”
Hannah Broadbent, deputy CEO of Childnet, adds: “It’s important to have open and honest conversations with children of all ages about how they use technology and the risks they face.
“It can help to direct young people who have a keen interest in technology towards positive routes for developing their digital skills, such as coding and programming clubs.”
According to charity Enough Is Enough, which focuses on internet safety, the most obvious piece of advice is to check whether your child is using one of the browsers. But its CEO Donna Rice Hughes says too many parents are simply burying their heads in the sand.
“Parents need to be really concerned about the dark web,” she says. “But it’s very challenging to get them to take action using parental controls and other measures to protect children. A large percentage think their children are immune, and very few are using the tools, especially on mobile technology most used by their kids.
“We know that children are big consumers of extreme internet porn, which is simple to find and free. Most of what they might seek out they don’t need to look for on the dark web, which contains quantities of child porn and other illegal activity and content.
“One of the pieces of software used to access the dark net can run off a USB flash drive. It comes with a pre-configured web browser to protect your anonymity and is self-contained. It’s a simple download. There are not too many parents who are aware enough or savvy enough to detect it.”
Donna believes legislation and beefed-up law enforcement are the best solutions for protecting children. But given the anonymity that the dark net provides, this has been difficult. Many prosecutions so far have occurred through luck or complex international undercover investigations.
There are developments, however, that could help investigators shine more light on the shadowy areas of the internet. A new tool called Solis is being piloted by Interpol and other law enforcement agencies.
“If the internet opened the floodgate for all the good and the bad of the world, the dark net has opened up a new Pandora’s Box that makes the worst of the world wide web look like child’s play,” says Donna.
Sadly, these warnings come too late for Sarah.
“If I knew back then, would I have been able to do something about it?” she asks. “I talked to my boys all the time. I had a very close, open relationship with them. I thought I knew what was going on in their lives.
“I am glad after the court case that someone is paying, that there are consequences for this person, because it might make him and others realise you can’t hide behind this faceless system. But it hasn’t given me closure, because my boys are never coming back.”
AddSearch Custom Site Search